Since we know Danièle Vuitton and her husband Philippe, we have often had the opportunity to talk about the history of the Vuitton family.
Biographies have been published on Louis Vuitton? of course. They mix the family history and the history of the world-famous company.
Georges, the successor, and Gaston-Louis Vuitton, so well-known for his collections, are also often spoken of.
But Henry-Louis Vuitton is very seldom mentioned. Who could tell us about him better than his own daughter!
Thank you again, Danièle, for taking the time to receive us and to confide us the personal documents and memories presented below.
Henry-Louis Vuitton through the eyes of his daughter Daniele Masson-Vuitton
With my words and memories, I will try to tell you about my Dad.
Henry was born on 10 august 1911, in a sweltering heat. He was Renée and Gaston-L’s first boy but not the first child, since his elder sister Andrée was 4, and not the last one since three girls and two boys were to be born after him!
Birth announcement for Henry-Louis
The cradle of the family is in Asnières: the factory, the house of his grandparents Georges and Joséphine, and the house of Gaston and Renée, with a jointly-shared large garden.
Henry will live there until he gets married in 1935.
He studied at Cours Saint Louis in Paris, in the 8th district (so did I…) but in 1928, when he was 17, Gaston and Georges decided that he should join the factory as an apprentice. He went through all the manufacturing steps of a piece of stiff luggage, he learned from A to Z how to make a suitcase or a trunk.
Henry-Louis and Georges-L Vuitton
Georges Vuitton with a Flower trunk
Once back, Georges worked at the factory where he was in charge of manufacturing and all the special orders for people with high places. As for Gaston-L, he was working in the shop at 70 avenue des Champs Elysées, and Henry worked by his side as a Sales Manager until 1945. On the first floor of the shop, Renée ran a luxurious toys lounge (about which I will tell more later).
Henry-Louis Vuitton’s visiting cards before his wedding, and his photo at that time
The Vuitton’s building, at 70 avenue des Champs Elysées, is Georges’ work, a splendid classified façade. Peculiarity on the façade, level with the pavement, there is a “dogs’ bar”, a kind of stoup with water for thirsty dogs!!! Georges actually thought of everything…
In 1931 and 1932, Henry-L served his military term in the 13th Regiment of Dragons (15.02.31 – 15.10.32).
Another anecdote I’ve always heard at home: in 1934, a “great lady” came to the shop and asked for Monsieur Vuitton. It was Henry she was going to meet!
She wanted to place a very important order for white crocodile stiff luggage… Henry proved to Gaston that he was equal to the task. Proud of his grand-son, Georges sent him alone to Great Britain, to choose and negotiate 60 crocodile skins…
In 1935, Daddy got married with Josette Rateau and they lived at 70 Champs Elysées, in the Vuitton’s building with the shop on the avenue and, on the eighth and last floor, in the attic, La Soupente. From this union, were born three children: Colette in 1936, Philippe Louis in 1937 (who sadly died in January 1947) and Danièle in 1943.
Alas Georges died in 1936, he was almost 80 years old… and Henry lost his respected beloved grandfather, a sensitive gentle kind man whom everybody appreciated; that is how Daddy always told us about him.
Daddy was 32 when I was born in La Soupente.
From 1939 to 1945, Henry-L was volunteer during the war: 51st GRDI mounted squadron on 3 September 1939 then volunteer in BSM 407 28 August 1944.
Volunteer 22nd security regiment until 15 January 1945, with the rank of captain.
In 1945, Gaston-L appointed him Business Manager of the shop. Daddy was working a lot, I have never seen him on holiday… Sometimes in September he joined us for a hunting week-end in Sologne, in a family property where I was on holiday since school was starting in the beginning of October.
In the fifties, the Champs Elysées atmosphere changed, it was no longer the avenue of luxury but of tourism… Then Gaston-L looked for a new prestigious address.
In 1954 they moved from the Champs Elysées to 78a avenue Marceau, a more elegant address for customers who no longer liked the atmosphere of the Champs Elysees.
Daddy allowed me to take part in the move! And at only 11, I threaded my way among the removal boxes and in the lorries! That is when I noticed that Henry was called, by all the employees from the shop as well as from the factory, and by the suppliers too, Monsieur Henry! What a funny name!!!
Henry-L was happy in this new spacious, bright and modern shop where he set up his "open" office to watch and listen! It was a huge round place topped with a glass roof. As for Gaston-L, his office was in the entrance, further back, and would become Henry’s one later in the 1965s.
Renée set up on the first floor her electric train sets, her tin soldiers, her extraordinary toys and her oversized soft toys… She had a very little desk next to the stairway to enable her to see since she could not hear… a very little wooden desk that had been manufactured in the Asnières factory and that I have kept! Indeed, Renée was deaf since the death of her youngest daughter at the age of 4 in 1929… and Gaston-L thought she would be less melancholy by offering her a way of escaping.
What a windfall was this lounge for me, a paradise for the eyes of good children… Everything made me dream (the tin soldiers excepted), the dolls, the soft toys and especially a grocer’s shop! With all its little drawers and its samples, I could play shop!!! It was white with red drawers!
The year 1959 was a turning point for Henry-L. Up to then Louis Vuitton manufactured stiff luggage with the famous LV canvas, or leather soft luggage. But it was impossible to make soft luggage with the LV canvas. Soft-sided luggage, like the Speedy, the Keepall or the Noé, could only be made out of brown canvas. A new process was developed and gave birth to the LV soft canvas… Henry-L then suggested to Gaston that the production should be expanded to travel bags, handbags and small leather goods. Gaston-L gave his consent.
It was from that year on that Henry-L became a creator. He spent all his time drawing, designing prototypes, making mock-ups; he created 25 to 30 new models a year! Cult models like the Speedy and Keepall, the handbags and the small leather goods collection were born at that time.
He created some bags that still exist today: The Biface, the Besace, the Chantilly, the Papillon, a men’s bag with two pockets (the first unit of which I have). He also created small leather items (wallets, purses, briefcases, passport holders, paper holders, etc.)
I could see Daddy happy, because Gaston had always considered him as an apprentice who had never progressed whilst Gaston was now regarding him as a man (it was high time, for Daddy was going to be 50 years old…).
Daddy also created slogans! Indeed, for Louis Vuitton he registered the slogan: “Voguez Volez Voyagez avec des bagages Vuitton” (sail, fly, travel with Vuitton luggage).
For the Trade Association of Luggage makers which he was to chair from 1963 to 1977, he invented: “Vos bagages vous classent” (your luggage shows your rank) and “Pensant cadeau, pensant voyage, pensez baggage” (when you think gift, when you think travel, think luggage).
Years were going by and the brand Louis Vuitton was developing at the speed of a galloping horse. It was no longer only the image of custom-made trunks for people with high places or celebrities, but an accessible luxury brand.
Daddy carried on as Business Manager up to 1977. Hence, he worked almost 50 years in the company. That was when he handed over the reins to his brother-in-law Henry Racamier who, by developing a network of shops in his own name in France and abroad, gave an international recognition to the brand.
Daddy will go and work in his avenue Marceau office until around 1990. I used to go and see him in that office that had been Gaston’s one previously. A very impressive office, with bronze busts of Georges and Gaston, walls covered with front parts of very old trunks, studded ones for instance; it made a real difference from the office situated in the shop amongst the sales women!
Henry Louis Vuitton and Odile Racamier
The time came when the shops abroad sprouted up like mushrooms, this was in the 1977s. Daddy and Mummy were going to be the brand ambassadors for each opening ceremony; the first one in Tokyo (1978), then New York (1981), Madrid, Hawaii, Hong Kong, Geneva, London, Berlin, Munich, Monaco or Roma, …
I witnessed then Mummy’s outfits choice, I also remember Daddy with his white or black dinner jackets! They were gorgeous, an elegant, very elegant couple. Afterwards I really enjoyed watching the foreign papers cuttings, the official photos… I was so happy for them. They were to keep a liking for small group organised private trips which would take them to little-known places.
Some higgledy-piggledy memories!
In the 1967s emerged the epi leather with its first range of colours. One evening, Daddy came back home with the first samples of this brand-new thing: bright blue, red, bright yellow and lawn green… I was allowed for Christmas to choose a colour for a Speedy!
“YES Daddy, a green one!!!” It was so garish that I’ve never used it…
On 24 February 1961? The inauguration of Orly air terminal. Mummy was unwell! What could we do? Daddy told me “How about coming with me?” Oops, I put on my nicest dress to go with Daddy, “my Daddy”. An evening where I came across personalities from the political, business, media worlds, from show-biz, it was magical for, each time we met somebody, Daddy would say “Let me introduce my daughter”.
On 27 November 1977? Maiden flight Paris - New York in 3h30. Louis Vuitton had manufactured a briefcase engraved “CONCORDE” in golden letters, and Daddy and Mummy were invited on board! Daddy was so enthusiastic about the journey that he would offer his son-in-law (my husband) a one-way ticket to New York aboard the Concorde.
Lastly the 1990s saw the arrival of Bernard Arnault! Sad years when Daddy will have to leave his office in two days… Our family had lost the battle…
An iconic brand remains and what a beautiful brand, but Daddy saw a family, HIS family die out.
I have brought back to life some memories of Monsieur Henry’s life, but fortunately Daddy had a family life and I am glad to share with you some more personal memories.
Daddy was affectionate to me, the littlest one. I had the right to snuggle on his lap when he came back up from the shop to the Soupente. But I did not share summer holidays with my parents and that is a part of my childhood I regret. I would spend a month with one grand-mother at the seaside, then I would stay in the family property in Sologne, where my parents only came for weekends.
Schoolgirl, student, graduate and then working, I was still living in La Soupente … till I was 25! On 6 July 1968 I was leaving La Soupente in my wedding dress, with Daddy, to go to the church. I think he was even more moved than I was…
Danièle with her father on her wedding day
Every weekend, Daddy and Mummy would leave for vallée de Chevreuse where we joined them. There, it was the reign of Papou and Mita and their seven grand-children. Each of them collected something: frogs, monkeys, pigs, ducks, tortoises, cows, etc. and Daddy, not knowing how to please them, would comb through all the junk shops with me, looking for the treasure… During his trips, he had hardly arrived in a country when he was seeking again! The more he found, the more pleased he was; and the return, with the distribution, was a magical time. Mummy preferred museums.
As grand-parents, they were great! For the 10th anniversary of each of their seven grand-children, they would take him on a trip! What a nice idea for building a unique relationship. And the year the youngest was 12 years old, the nine of them (taking us was out of question) left aboard the Mermoz for cruising the Spitsbergen…
In 1999, Daddy and Mummy became great-grandparents twice, and in 2001 as well. What a love shared with all of them. They were entitled cuddles on their laps as well; Daddy told stories and sung old melodies… How he made us laugh with his tunes: Une demoiselle sur une balançoire, Mademoiselle Angèle qui frappe au numéro un, etc.. His great-grand-sons were mesmerized, looked at him and burst out laughing!
Since we were sharing their house called “Carioca” (title of a song born while they were engaged), my children, on Sunday mornings, used to go and drink their feeding bottles in his bed! What a tender image… Every Saturday morning at 10 sharp (very sharp, Daddy had a clock in him), he and I would go to the market, a moment for us both, for sharing our little secrets.
In the garden of Carioca, had pride of place “Papou’s house”, a small log cabin that he used as a workshop. He regained his soul of a creator: he built bird houses, made key-rings or other trinkets, mended the shopping baskets handles! And all this with leather scraps. Nothing was missing in Papou’s house! A hundred or so small drawers for screws, nuts, nails, rivets, etc. with one sample stuck on the front of the drawer.
I was 59 when my Daddy died, my “Papou” … I knew he would depart but what an ordeal… He let himself depart in the end of summer 2002, he was 91, on tiptoe, with discretion and dignity as he had lived his entire life …